WASHINGTON, United States, May 24 – The Boston Celtics, reinvigorated by a return home, beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-83 on Wednesday to move within one win of reaching the NBA Finals.
Rookie Jayson Tatum scored 24 points to lead five Boston players in double figures as the Celtics took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
Four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James led Cleveland with 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
But James looked at times as if he were feeling the effects of the heavy load he has carried for the Cavs in these playoffs, coughing up six of Cleveland’s 15 turnovers, including four in the second half.
“I think everybody at this point is tired or worn down or whatever the case may be,” James said. “I’m fine.”
Kevin Love, with 14 points, was the only other player to score in double figures for the Cavs, who host game six on Friday trying to stay on track for a fourth straight trip to the Finals.
Game seven, if needed, will be back in Boston on Sunday.
James himself is seeking an eighth straight trip to the title series, although he said that streak wouldn’t be on his mind come Friday.
“Not at all,” he said. “It’s just all about just win every game and it should put us in position to play for a championship.
“We look forward to having an opportunity to force a game seven. It’s up to us to see if we can come back here (to Boston) for one more.”
The winner of the series will play either the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets for the NBA crown. The Western Conference rivals are locked at 2-2 in their series.
With James on the bench to open the fourth quarter, the Celtics pushed a 16-point lead to 21.
A 9-0 Cavs run reduced the deficit to 12 points, but Cleveland came up empty on their next four attempts.
“Defensively we gave ourselves a chance,” said James noting the Cavs held the Celtics to 36.5 percent shooting.
“At one point we had two opportunities to cut it to single digits and missed some really good looks, two three-pointers. We couldn’t make. And if you don’t make, it’s going to come back to bite you.”
The Celtics improved to 10-0 at home this post-season, and Tatum said there’s no reason they can’t wrap up the series on Friday, even though so far the home team has won every game in the series.
“We’ve got to be focused, composed and play with a lot of poise and we’ll be fine,” he said, clearly up for the challenge.
“It’s my first year. We’re one win away from going to the Finals. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.
The Cavs got off to a rocky start, with five first-quarter turnovers nearly matching their seven field goals.
– Shoving match –
With 10:47 left in the second quarter and the Celtics up 17 points, Boston forward Marcus Morris and Cleveland’s Larry Nance tangled, with Nance sent sprawling to the floor.
Morris appeared to say something to Nance before turning away, and Nance rose from the floor and shoved him from behind.
As officials and other players intervened Celtics guard Terry Rozier raced into the fray and pushed Nance.
It all ended with Morris, Nance and Rozier receiving technical fouls.
An energized Cleveland team then twice whittled the deficit to eight points before the Celtics reasserted themselves to lead 53-42 at half-time.
“I didn’t think we played well tonight at all,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. “So now we’ve got to go home, win game six and come back here for game seven.”